“Remember, you can’t talk, you can’t use your phone, watch TV or read newspapers,” my mother told me.
“What about books? Can I read books?”
She looked at the paper again. “No, not even books. It says right here,” she said, reading a line from the paper out loud in Chinese.
No books. No TV. Not even a bed.
What an absolutely boring way to spend an entire week of my school holidays, I thought to myself.
I was 16. School was out and all I wanted was to game for two weeks and read for the last two.
I already felt like not going.
But I didn’t have much of a choice. My mother insisted and signed me and my siblings up for the seven-day Buddhist retreat.
“I can’t even read Chinese,” I threw out my final protest.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, “You know they have everything in pinyin. You can read pinyin, can’t you?”
It wasn’t that I was against the retreat, but imagining a world without entertainment for a teenager felt like a prison sentence.
Without knowing what to expect, I went to the first Buddhist retreat of my life at 16.
The retreat was something called 八關齋戒 (Eight Precepts Observance) and was a retreat for lay people to live like monks for a period of time.
For rebellious and hot-tempered teens like myself, it was probably also meant to teach me to be a better human being.
A day before the retreat, I packed enough clothes for a week, left my books, TV and phone home and got into my mother’s car. We were to arrive the evening before to settle in and receive a briefing.
As we entered the building, I started feeling anxious. Doubts swirled in my head but I told myself to keep an open heart.
Once registration was done, we were swiftly brought to our lodgings which was on the highest floor of the building.
It was a big, airy room with maybe thirty cheap, foam mattresses strewn across the wide open room.
We were one of the latest to arrive. There were bags and buckets next to most of the beds already.
Thankfully, we still managed to squeeze into a row of beds adjacent to one another – me, my two sisters and my mother.
When night arrived, we dressed in our robes and went down to the main hall for the briefing. There, the monks briefed us on all the rules for the retreat.
There were a lot of rules, but the most important ones for me were not to talk, be vegetarian, not to have any kind of entertainment, not to put any kind of perfume on your body and not to sleep on a heightened bed.
There would be exactly two meals a day – breakfast and lunch, and no snacks in between.
When I laid my head to rest that night, I began to feel the dread. With so many rules, seven days felt longer than ever. What’s worse, I had 早课 (morning session) was to start at 4.30am. That meant I had to get up at 4.00am.
I closed my eyes and hoped not to oversleep.
I had worried too soon, I found, when in the wee hours of the morning the loud sounds of ruffling plastic bags woke me up.
I looked at my clock. It was only 3.00am. I used my pillow to dampen the noise, but I couldn’t go back to sleep. After half an hour, I decided to just get up and shower.
The first day was the hardest. Having been used to just lying around doing nothing for the week before, I found myself falling asleep a few times during the morning session.
Except for lunch time, the breaks in between sessions were short. The sessions themselves were demanding both mentally and physically.
You would either be doing recitations while walking or bowing or meditating in an almost perfect lotus seating position. If you were to slouch in meditation, an attending monk would come by and gently pat you on the shoulder with a wooden bat.
In the retreat, meals were a solemn affair in the dining hall. You were to eat quietly and focus on your food. There wasn’t any of the usual banter that happened during meals. It was all quiet.
You didn’t need to cook. By the time you entered the dining hall, food was already laid out in a plate. Servers went from row to row with bowls of food in case you needed food removed or added to your plate.
For seven days, I did about the same thing, keeping to the schedule – wake up 3.00am or earlier from the sounds of ruffling plastic bags. Morning sessions. Breakfast. Mid-morning sessions. Lunch. Afternoon sessions. Night sessions.
Doing the same thing every day, being away from my usual entertainment sources, sleeping on an uncomfortable foam mattress at night – all these things should have made me feel really bored, and wanting to run home the minute the retreat ended.
Instead, when the retreat did end, I looked at my mother and thanked her for inviting me on it. At 16, I had picked up useful life lessons that would stay with me for the next decade and more by learning a portion of a monk’s way of life.
Lesson #1: Eat your food slowly and be mindful of every bite.
“Did you know that eating can be a kind of meditation?” the Elder monk asked us on our first lunch in the dining hall.
I was surprised to hear that. How could it be? I wondered. I had always imagined meditation to be something you did with your eyes closed.
“When you eat, taste the food, chew slowly and think about the effort it took to prepare this food in front of you. The farmers who had grown your food and the cooks who had prepared it for you. This way, you will value your food, have gratitude for those who prepared it for you, and not waste it.”
I always used to eat my food in haste, and waste a good portion of the food. But now I learned how to do eat more mindfully.
Lesson #2: Appreciate those who serve you.
As we continued eating, the elder monk asked us: “Who do you think has the hardest job in this hall?”
The monks? I guessed.
“It’s not you, or me,” he replied, “it’s these servers who circle around you, giving you food, or taking food you don’t want away. It’s a tough job – sometimes you take too much away and people get angry, sometimes you give them too little and they get angry too. Serving people the way they expect is one of the hardest jobs in this world.”
“And that is why,” he said, “people who serve us in any way, deserve our utmost respect. Regardless of their age, even when they are younger you, respect them.”
When he said that, I felt a bit embarrassed of myself. I had always treated service staff badly because well, that’s what they’re paid to do right?
I took this lesson home and told myself to always treat service staff with courtesy for their job is truly one of the hardest in the world.
Lesson #3: Have respect, even for inanimate objects.
Having respect for inanimate objects was one of the most interesting lessons I ever learned during meal time.
After hearing loud noises from the group during meal time, the Elder monk said to us:
“Be gentle with your bowls, chopsticks, and cups and respect them,” he said, “even though they are not alive, they too deserve respect.”
He went on to say that inanimate objects, though not alive, also respond to our actions. If we respect them, e.g. put a book properly on a shelf instead of the floor, they too will give us their respect.
This was a pretty odd ideology for me, but when I thought about it, it didn’t hurt to do it since I had horrible habits of throwing things around.
Since adopting this lesson, I’ve become a much tidier person. I don’t leave things around on the floor, or seats.
Although I don’t have any evidence of this, I’ve read in some study on
Lesson #4: Take care of your body. It’s the only one you have.
Since the monks saw eating as another way of meditation, we were required to sit up with our back straight at all times during meals.
Moreover, they told us it was also good for our digestion to do so.
“Food goes down more easily through a straight tract,” the junior monk had said.
After each meal, the junior monk would bring us for a few rounds of walking. This was meant to help us get some exercise and meditation.
“It is better to take a walk after a meal than just sit down or lie down,” the junior monk said.
Sitting down or eve lying down after a meal was a bad habit I’d had for a really long time.
After the retreat, I made a conscious decision to always sit upright when I eat and not to lie down after a meal. My health has improved tremendously thanks to this habit.
Lesson #5: Put your heart in everything you do, even the small things.
Once the walks were done, we separated to work on our assigned tasks. These usually involved menial tasks like sweeping and cleaning to help with the upkeep of the building.
“Put your heart into everything you do, even small things like wiping the table and sweeping the floor,” the Elder monk had said.
For him, how you handled the small things was how you handled everything. Good character spills over from one thing to the next.
Lesson #6: Respect your teachers, respect your parents and respect all your elderly.
On the last day of the retreat, the monks called all the parents to come in front, with their kids lined up.
“Kowtow to your parents,” he said, “kowtow is a traditional way for children to pay respect to the parents who have given birth to them, sacrificed for them, and loved them unconditionally.”
Having been raised with a western education, I initially found this demeaning. Why should I kowtow to anyone? I thought. But I did it anyway.
When I got up, my mother’s eyes were wet with tears. I hugged her and said thank you.
When we went back to our seats, the Elder monk continued, “Why do you respect elders, even those who are not your own parents?” the Elder monk asked us.
I didn’t really know why.
“That’s because it was the hard work and sacrifices of the generation before you that allows you to enjoy the comforts of today.”
Lesson #7: Leave a place as you found it.
The next morning, the retreat was over. The familiar chatter of normal life resumed as if it never stopped.
The best part of the day after the retreat was that I didn’t need to get up at 3.00am anymore. I could sleep in.
Though I had planned to sleep in until 9.00am to make up for all the lost sleep during the week, I was woken up by 7.00am by sounds of people shifting furniture around.
I opened my eyes and to my astonishment, the entire place was almost empty of the foam mattresses.
Except the few of us who were still sleeping on them, most of the mattresses were already laid up in a corner.
I quickly got up and got ready. When I entered the main hall, most of the setup from the retreat was already cleared. I tried helping too. It was the same thing for the dining hall.
By 9.30am, the entire place had been reset to how it was before the retreat.
This lesson would carry on with me whenever I visit a place – a restaurant, a hotel, an Airbnb – as much as possible, I do my best to reset the entire place as I found it.
Before that, I had given very little attention to resetting a place, always believing it wasn’t ‘my job’ to do so.
The Last Two Lessons
The Elder monk who led the retreat had turned 84 that year. He had a colorful career in the Taiwanese military that had begun in his 20s.
For two decades, he had been married to his loving wife.
Then, in their 40s, they both left the comforts of home to become a monk and a nun.
“What is compassion?” the old monk asked during the first night session. “Some people think love (爱）and compassion（慈悲）are the same thing. But it isn’t. Love is something you give when you expect something back. But compassion is when you just give without expecting anything in return. Aspire to have compassion. Build your heart of compassion every day.”
Having a compassionate heart and building compassion for people was something the Elder monk would continue talking about for the entire seven day retreat.
When I thought about it, compassion was probably the reason why he left his life behind to do what he did today, and what
Because of his compassion for people like me.
He had given up a lot of material things. He didn’t have a house, he didn’t contact his family much, he didn’t have money, and yet he looked so much happier than me, or anyone I knew.
That was when I realized it was true: it’s what you have inside that makes your life meaningful. A
Looking back on these lessons as a 30 year old, they appear basic. Yet, I knew that without them, I would have been a worse version of myself today.
The retreat was one of the best things I ever did in my teens.
I haven’t seen the Elder monk or his junior monks for more than 10 years now, but I still think about them from time to time. Most of all, I thank them for being patient with me and giving me life lessons that continue to guide my life today.